Errol Flynn movies are usually filled with so much spectacle (swordplay, bar fights, romance, adventure, multiple comic relief characters) that it is easy to overlook what a fine actor Flynn actually was. If you ever need confirmation of his acting skill, check out THE DAWN PATROL, a remake of the 1930 Howard Hawk's film. The story of a group of WWI British pilots who are sent out every day on near-impossible missions, THE DAWN PATROL is not only one of Flynn's most gripping films, but also one of the great war films. Flynn plays Captain Courtney, who clashes with his commanding officer Major Brand (an excellent Basil Rathbone) over the daily orders. The planes are dilapidated, the new recruits that come in are too green, the missions too insane. When the tables are turned and Courtney becomes the commanding officer, he learns how difficult Major Brand's job was. Rather than making Brand a villain, he is shown to be a man who cares about his pilots and knows how deadly the missions are, yet has his back to the wall, having no choice but to accept the orders that come to him that will send one or two pilots to their death each day.
Flynn retains the charm that made him a star, but his transformation from cynical pilot to weary commanding office shows the man did have great range. It was the type of part Flynn begged Warner Brothers to give him, and he played it for all it was worth. There are equally good performances by the supporting cast - all male -, including David Niven as Lieutenant Scott, Courtney's best pal, and Donald Crisp as Phipps, Major Brand's right hand man. The scene in which Crisp dreams about getting a dog to bring some happiness to the camp is a highlight, as it shows the human, emotional side of these men who look death in the face every day, whether in the air, or on the ground.
The aerial dogfight scenes are created from footage from the original film with new closeups added of the actors piloting their planes. There is also much back projection as well as some miniature work during a climactic attack on a German ammunitions depot. Despite all the necessary movie trickery, these scenes create authentic excitement.
Based on the same script as the Howard Hawk's original, updated for the talents of the new cast, THE DAWN PATROL should have lead to meatier roles for Flynn, but unfortunately for him, the public wanted to see him in adventure films, and Warners kept supplying them.